Issue #4, 1995

What's the Story #4

The Creative Nonfiction Approach

Lee Gutkind

What's the Story #4

"Now that you have established this journal called Creative Nonfiction," people ask, "here's something I'd like to know: What does it mean?"

It's surprising to learn how many writers (and readers) don't understand, exactly, the elements of the form in which they are writing. Some are attracted by the word "creative" and think that because their prose is unusual or distinctive and because the stories they are telling are true that they are writing in the genre of creative nonfiction. Others, usually people with a journalistic background, are put off by the word "creative," maintaining that if it is creative, then it certainly can't be accurate, believable or ethical, which are the essences and anchors of nonfiction prose.

However, there is no conflict between being a good "reporter" and a good writer, creative in technique and approach. The essays published in each issue of Creative Nonfiction are models of the truest forms of creative nonfiction, in that they simultaneously "showcase" or "frame" fact in a creative context. "Truth," which should not be confused with the factual or informational aspects of the genre, is another important element of the "classic" creative nonfiction form -- and often a more personal one. A writer's concept of the truth may not be universally accepted and may even conflict with the facts as others understand or remember them. Good creative nonfiction does not deny personal opinion; on the contrary, it welcomes the subjective voice.

In any good nonfiction work there is, first and foremost, a message: What the writer has to say or show about the person, place or situation he or she is documenting or relating, as in Gay Talese's 1966 profile published in this issue, which presents Frank Sinatra's generally unpredictable personality, especially apparent and offensive when he is annoyed by some common aggravation like a head cold. This is often called the theme, or the main point of focus.

The building blocks of the Sinatra piece specifically, and good creative nonfiction generally, are scenes, another important element of the creative nonfiction form. Talese leads us on a whirlwind cross-country tour, revealing Sinatra and his entourage interacting with one another and with the rest of the world and demonstrating how the Sinatra world and the world inhabited by everyone else often collides. These scenes are action-oriented; they contain dialogue and evocative description with great specificity and intimacy of detail, such as the gray-haired lady Talese spotted in the shadows of the Sinatra entourage -- the guardian of Sinatra's toupee collection.

The factual element of good creative nonfiction is also readily apparent: In this essay, Gay Talese is teaching his readers something significant not only about Frank Sinatra, but also about the world of entertainment in the 1950s and 1960s -- and about the uses and abuses of charisma, money and power. This is part of the message or focus -- and a universal and personal interpretation of the "truth" a writer might wish to tell -- without becoming overly experiential or egocentric. In fact, what is so wonderful about "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" is that the reader feels Talese's presence on every page and in every scene, but Talese understands that he is not the subject that attracts his readers and has consequently chosen to write the Sinatra profile almost entirely in the third person. Most creative nonfiction is written in the first person. The challenge in writing in the first person is to be intimate and revealing while reaching beyond the boundaries of self and embracing a universal audience or message. Talese is intimate and revealing about his subject -- Frank Sinatra -- while providing an essence of himself without his literal self, which is a creative triumph.

The story behind the researching and writing of this profile is legendary. Gay Talese had been asked to profile Sinatra for Esquire, but when Talese arrived in Los Angeles Sinatra refused to be interviewed while burdened with a head cold. Instead of returning to New York without his story, Talese chose to hang around, hoping to be given the opportunity to interview the great man later. In the meantime, Talese watched at a distance, asking questions, taking mental notes and gradually fashioning a meticulous portrait that was to become incredibly telling -- and amazingly accurate. Talese was there, for example, not 10 feet from the action, when Sinatra confronted Harlan Ellison, the young screen writer with the "Game Warden" boots, recording the dialog and the heat of the moment, as it happened -- an example of a telling and evocative scene, as powerful and as creative as any ever written.

The publication of "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" introduces a feature that will be continuing through many of our upcoming issues: the Creative Nonfiction Classic -- essays, profiles, articles, some heretofore unrecognized or unremembered, like John McPhee's paean to the Hershey Chocolate Co., "The Conching Rooms," which is being published here for the first time anywhere since 1972. McPhee's essay originally appeared in The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" section that, up until a few years ago, contained unsigned prose pieces by the magazine's most prestigious writers, including John Updike, Joseph Mitchell and Lillian Ross. According to McPhee, "The Conching Rooms" is one of his favorite "Talk" pieces.

When told that Creative Nonfiction planned to unveil this rare "hidden McPhee," he was delighted. He told a story about how the highly refined taste buds of the principal character in the essay, Bill Wagner, who alone determined that the chocolate being made was "Hershey" quality, reminded him of his own writing process and how he finally decided to release his articles and essays to his editors and writers. "I complain about all of the difficult and painful aspects of writing, but at the same time, I have always felt lucky that for better or worse, right or wrong, I seem to have a sense within myself of when it is 'Hershey's' or right for me."

Also included in this issue are new essays by writers who are not as well known as Talese and McPhee but equally "creative," personally truthful and generally informational. Samuel F. Pickering, who has been described by a critic as perhaps the best unknown essayist in America is, in some respects, a more prominent personality than either Talese or McPhee because he was actually the inspiration for the Robin Williams character in the movie, "The Dead Poets Society," a maverick teacher at an exclusive private school eventually dismissed because of his free-spirited philosophy and permissive but charismatic personality.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Louis Simpson and Jonathan Holden are respected poets who have infrequently crossed genres to write nonfiction prose. Elizabeth Hodges and Lisa Knopp are new talents -- young writers becoming increasingly comfortable and adventure -- some with the essay form.

Author Bio

Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind, recognized by Vanity Fair as “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” is the founder and editor of Creative... read more

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